Jeffrey Wright’s Thelonious “Monk” Ellison is at the end of his rope at the beginning of “ American Fiction, ” a crowd-pleaser that’s both funny and smart in its satire of race, media, artists, identity politics and even Hollywood. It opens in theaters this week.
A classic frustrated artist, Monk is a professor and an author who writes literary stories that he wants to see in the world. He’s not interested in race, or at least the kind of “Black misery porn” stories that seem to be omnipresent, whether it’s in the Black history month advertisement on television with images of addicts and slaves, or at a book convention.
The latest hit that has him fuming is a book called “We’s Lives In Da Ghetto,” written by a comfortably upper middle class Black woman (Issa Rae) who gives interviews about how dismayed she was in her post-college job at a literary agency that she didn’t see stories about “her people.” But exploitative and demeaning as they are, those are also the ones that get the book deals, that sell, that draw the big crowds at book events, that get the movie deals.
Monk’s books, smart as they are, don’t — until one drunken night he writes a parody of the kind of Black novel he hates, under a pseudonym, and suddenly becomes a sensation.
Cord Jefferson, in his directorial debut, establishes the movie’s tone well right off the bat in scene in which a white girl is offended that Monk has written a certain word, all seven letters of it, on the blackboard.
“With all due respect, Britney, I got over it. I’m pretty sure you can too,” he says. When she pushes back, Jefferson cuts to a closeup of Wright growling before a quick cut to Britney’s exit. We overhear Monk in the background angrily asking the remaining students if they actually want to talk about the reading.
Monk does not suffer fools and seems incapable of not saying exactly what he feels at any given moment, but he’s also rubbed a few too many people the wrong way. A few minutes in, he finds himself on an unwanted mandatory break, in Boston, with his family: Mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams), sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) and brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown).
This family is complex and struggling — who isn’t — but not in the ways that the novels Monk hates always seem to want Black families to be. Lisa’s a family planning doctor trying to recover financially from a divorce and take care of her quickly deteriorating mother. Cliff is also a doctor, a plastic surgeon, discovering after a marriage to a woman that he likes men. They all have lingering trauma from their dead father, worries about money and how they’ll afford a care facility for their mom.
Jefferson adapted the story from Percival Everett’s “Erasure,” which remains relevant 20 years later. It is particularly withering in its send up of white people clamoring for their idea of authentic Black stories, like the literary agent Paula Bateman (Miriam Shor) and the film producer Wiley (a very funny Adam Brody whose character might be a spiritual continuation of his “Thank You For Smoking” assistant). Wiley is currently working on a film called “Plantation Annihilation” in which the ghosts of slaves go on a murderous rampage.
While it’s not exactly subtle, it’s also not entirely simplistic either — I’m not sure the film ever really reconciles Rae’s character in particular, much to the frustration of Monk (and us).
Still, it’s hardly a surprise that “American Fiction” won the people’s choice prize at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this year. The film is immensely watchable, staged without flash or pretention, that relies on its sharp script and talented and charismatic actors to carry the audience through. Wright is particularly delightful at the center of it all as he navigates a new relationship as well as the consequences of his lie and how far he’s willing to go with it.
“American Fiction,” an MGM release in theaters Friday and expanding on Dec. 22, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for “language throughout, some drug use, sexual references and brief violence.” Running time: 117 minutes. Three stars out of four.